Wander is making digital maps accessible offline
It’s not every day that a startup idea comes to you as a child and comes to fruition years later.
That’s the story for AJ Brau, who had her big “aha!” idea in 2010 at age 12 while at Lake Powell with her parents. She struggled to navigate with a paper map as it flapped in the wind, and with a spotty internet connection on the lake, Google Maps wouldn’t load. Rather, it was a blank gray screen with the blue dot blinking and moving around by itself.
“I thought, what if we loaded the data from the paper maps onto an app on the phone and connected it with GPS?” Brau says. If she built an app and charged $5 per download, she’d be a millionaire by 16 if the app got 3 million visitors per year.
That didn’t happen. It took two years to build the app, and with $100 worth of homemade flyers, she wound up with 10,000 paid downloads over three years. Users loved the app, but it was expensive and time-consuming for her to maintain. So Brau took it off the app store and went off to do other things: travel to Japan, get a software engineering degree, work for a startup, get married, and have a baby.
“I always thought someone would solve the problem,” she says.
No one did.
Yet the problem was huge: 4 million destinations around the world are still printing paper maps as their primary navigation resource. Including amusement parks, ski resorts, national parks, state parks, museums, zoos, aquariums, historical sites, county tourism offices, and state-level tourism offices.
So Brau, at age 23, returned to the mapping challenge in 2021. She and her former childhood friends Nathan Porter and Aleksa Porter built Wander, a startup with a public app for consumers to navigate trails, amusement parks, and recreation areas offline—ideal in areas without internet access. The company has back-end tools that allow parks and destinations to build 3D terrain map experiences, update data, add content, and hit publish without the need for code, technical skills, or reprinting new maps.
Just a year after its start, Wander hired 14 employees, lined up 10 customers—including San Juan County and Utah Valley—and landed $2.75 million from investors.
“AJ just wowed us,” says Greg Beaufait, a partner at Dundee VC, an Omaha venture fund with a $40 million seed fund. “You can tell she’s all in. She’s been trying to solve this problem for a decade.”
In the years since Brau’s Lake Powell moment, plenty of others have been making digital maps for destination areas and the outdoors.
“We live in the day and age of maps, where it’s now one of the most expected interfaces when you deal with the phone or the computer,” says Bruce Buxton, director of digital transformation at Locana, a Denver GIS business development firm. It’s likely Uber would never have gotten the traction it did if not for the mapping feature, and as the world becomes more connected with wearables and the Internet of Things sensors, it will be even bigger going forward. “It’s an expectation,” Buxton says.
It’s also becoming a necessity for people out on trails with no cell reception, which makes up much of Utah’s desert areas. People have gotten lost out on the trails and died, says Elaine Gizler, the visitor services director for San Juan County just outside of Moab. The county is currently revamping its visitor maps and is considering using Wander.
“If you can download a map and not have to connect to Wi-Fi, that’s a safer way to navigate out on the trails,” she says. “Wander just sort of fills that gap where you don’t have to carry a paper map.”
While Google Maps services are used by one billion people each month and the app allows users to download maps of certain areas to be accessed offline, a flood of other niche mapping apps are popping up. They add even more layers of richer data to those maps, whether it’s topography, photos, reviews, or weather.
Visit Widget, AllTrails, onX, Mapme, and Attractions.io offer visitor centers and government agencies the ability to easily make custom maps. AllTrails has more than 50,000 offline trail maps for hiking and biking including topographic maps, photos, and reviews, while ViewRanger has offline maps for 180,000 trails.
Maps 3D Pro projects mapped areas with a 3D view, allowing users to more easily interpret terrain features such as hills, ridges, and trails. Kamoot allows mountain bikers and hikers to plan routes, offering turn-by-turn navigation with elevation and difficulty. And Cairn allows you to share a trip plan with your friends—if your return is overdue, your contacts are alerted with your last known location.
“Wander is definitely one of the cooler things happening in the destination travel industry today and has the opportunity to be formidable,” Buxton says.
Scaling the map worldwide will be a huge challenge for the startup, he continues. There is a huge array of mapping choices for consumers out there, and it will be tricky for Wander to offer enough mapping coverage for the millions of global destinations that people would want to explore. It could be hard to drive widespread usage of the app, he says.
Brau believes that challenge is doable. The mapping product will soon be self-service, meaning visitor centers can build and load maps on their own. “Because we’re a consumer-facing brand, as our audience grows, so does the value of publishing a map on Wander,” Brau says.
Part of any potential growth will likely be driven by the growing number of people getting outdoors. Thanks to the pandemic, 52.9 percent of the American population participated in outdoor activities in 2020. This number is up from 50.7 percent in 2019, according to OutdoorIndustry.org.
And while many may seek nature as a way to unplug, technology is inevitably available to assist off-grid, offering help with everything from identifying birds to constellations. Surfers can now forecast the waves with the Magicseaweed surf forecast app, Dark Sky hyper-predicts the weather, and UVlens helps users determine if they’re likely to get sunburned while outdoors. The American Red Cross’ First Aid app and SAS Survival Guide app offer offline instructions on medical emergencies in the wild. Spyglass not only offers offline trail maps but also allows users to track altitude and speed, the sun and stars, and take measurements with an angular calculator and inclinometer tools.
Interactive mapping is proving helpful in cases of emergencies in the wild, too. Gaia GPS has free maps that give real-time information on wildfires using satellite heat detection data and firefighter updates. Two of its other maps provide updates and projections on air quality, drawing on data from the Environmental Protection Agency’s AirNow program. An app called ATAK shows where firefighters are located, pinpoints the most dangerous parts of a fire, and calculates the likelihood of the fire spreading based on topography and other factors.
Brau sees destination maps as only the beginning. Wander intends to create user features that allow users to create and share an itinerary for a trip and share photos of where they go. Content creators may eventually build guides, sell premium guides, and offer audio guides or historical guides, Brau says. Hotels, Airbnb hosts, and Uber drivers could provide QR codes that let guests download a map with 10 recommendations of things to do in the area.
That vision of Wander convinced Beaufait at Dundee VC to invest in the startup. “The map is the starting point,” he says. “The future vision she has feels inevitable, and it makes you want to be a part of it.”